A government shutdown would worsen the FAA’s ongoing lack of air traffic control — and ultimately lead to possible travel disruptions.
About 1,000 air traffic controllers will be furloughed next week if Congress can’t reach an agreement, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday.
The closure would also force the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to close its ATC training facility in Oklahoma, he said. It would also free up some aspiring air traffic controllers who work in airport towers. More than 13,000 certified controllers would continue to work without pay.
“We have obviously experienced a lot of disruption to air travel, particularly over the past year. Some of these are weather-related, some were caused by airlines, but a factor may also be the availability of air traffic control personnel,” Buttigieg said at a press conference. “A shutdown lasting several days could result in us not meeting our workforce and hiring goals next year.”
The FAA currently employs 1,200 fewer air traffic controllers than ten years ago – despite more passengers and aircraft in the sky. The agency has hired 1,500 controllers this year and is expected to hire 1,800 next year — but Buttigieg said progress would be set back if it were shut down.
“We have seen a gap that has opened up over the years in staffing levels – we are finally on the right track,” Buttigieg said. “But that can’t happen if we are held back by training. Ultimately, that means more bottlenecks and failures, and that can lead to cancellations.”
Buttigieg urged House Republicans to “come to their senses” and pass legislation to keep the government funded.
“In this safety-critical job, it certainly doesn’t help when air traffic controllers come to work with the stress of not getting paid,” Buttigieg said. “Every day it gets more difficult and complicated.”
The air traffic controllers union also called on Congress to avoid a shutdown, saying the previous government shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019 undermined “critical layers of safety” in the country’s airspace.
“Shutdowns resulting from either a loss of funding or expired FAA authorization negatively impact the flying public, cause significant delays to critical programs, waste resources and taxpayer dollars, harm the economy, and burden NATCA members and their families,” Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), said last week.
“We cannot allow history to repeat itself,” NATCA said.